Mayday is balm. Mayday makes you see that it's not so bad after all -- the girl will come back, you'll find another job, your band will get signed. Just give it some time, and keep listening to Old Blood, the new record from Ted Stevens, current member of Cursive and ex-leader of Lullaby for the Working Class.
After his old band broke up several years ago, Stevens decided to put his own projects on hold for a while and started playing in friends' bands. Since then, he has distinguished himself as Tim Kasher's guitar-and-vocal foil in Cursive and The Good Life, as well as a jack-of-all-trades in the touring versions of Bright Eyes and Azure Ray. If a Saddle Creek band has come to your town in the past few years, there's a good chance that they've had Ted Stevens in tow. There are obvious reasons for this -- not only is he a badass guitar player and generally an all-around solid guy, but he can also rip it up on the clarinet.
However, Stevens has finally seen fit to return to his own muse, and has presented us with nine new songs under the cover of Mayday. The players on this record are, of course, virtually interchangeable with those of many other Saddle Creek bands, with such reliable folks as Andy Lemaster (of Now It's Overhead, and producer of Bright Eyes), Mike and A.J. Mogis (ex-members of Lullaby for the Working Class and contributors to Bright Eyes), Bright Eyes main man Conor Oberst, Cursive cellist Greta Cohn and the lovely ladies of Azure Ray, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, contributing to the proceedings. However, Mayday has a sound all its own, and can't really be accurately compared to any other Saddle Creek band -- or to any other band, for that matter.
The three records that Lullaby for the Working Class recorded were difficult, arty exercises in what you might call post-country -- they contained experimental, often lengthy songs that retained an element of twang, but were often laboriously slow and sometimes rather trying to sit through. The band's material was always extremely accomplished and ambitious, but was also, for the most part, lacking in hooks, and sometimes came across as overly professorial. However, the past few years supporting Conor Oberst in Bright Eyes and rocking the fuck out side-by-side with Tim Kasher in Cursive seem to have done Stevens a world of good. The influences of his friends are rather hard to spot on Old Blood, as it's such a cohesive, thematically perfect record, but if you listen hard enough, you can hear traces of Cursive's angular math-rock and Bright Eyes' unfettered emoting.
Mayday's sound is at once exotic and rootsy, ornate and plain, and astonishingly beautiful throughout. The album begins with "Cinquefoils", which features pretty, droning noises and buried percussion, evoking Macha's multicultural experiments. Soon after this intro, a banjo, guitar and vibraphone enter the picture, and Stevens himself takes the stage with these words: "There is a place before the river / Where the delta spreads five fingers". Although his voice is not the strongest thing in the world, when he croons "drunk on the pollen" in the song's chorus, he evokes a pastoral image that hasn't seen daylight since XTC's Skylarking.
"Come Home", one of the disc's strongest pieces, is a simple plea to a lover: "Trying to remember where I went wrong / I only wanna talk you into coming back / I won't even ask you where you've been / Or who you've been staying with." Gorgeous swirling guitar and Andy Lemaster's exquisite production touches make the song a wholly addictive entity -- and that's even before the chorus hits. When it does, with the Azure Ray girls crooning "come home, come home baby," the deal is sealed. The song ends with a gorgeous coda, offering a lyrical and musical nod to the Kinks' "Days": "All the days, I couldn't count all the days / That have passed without even unsettling the dust in this room." In a word, astonishing.
Elsewhere, Stevens' experimental streak, which sometimes made Lullaby such challenging listening, rears its head -- but this time, Stevens tempers it with a sublime pop sensibility. On "Captain", he delivers a strong, nautically-themed number in which he plumbs the lowest registers of his voice, while Lemaster harmonizes an octave above. The lyrics, while obviously dealing with a sea journey, can also easily be applied to our journey through life: "It takes steadfast endurance through the storm / Keep a candle and a compass always aboard / Look up the stars every night / Always remember you're somebody's child / Yes, you're mine." In "Lullaby for the Sleeping Elephant", Stevens re-tools "Silent Night" to suit his purposes; "I Know Moonlight" likewise reinterprets a traditional song.
"Confession", one of the record's more strident songs, features Conor Oberst on lead vocals, and his emotional delivery suits the song's dramatic, Morricone-style flourishes quite well. Thankfully, Oberst, who is (as has been well documented) more than a little prone to overdoing it at times, keeps his voice mostly in check, delivering his lines in a comparatively subdued fashion that never gets in the way of the music. Stevens saves his most ambitious moment for last, with the nearly ten-minute, long song suite "Temple/Temporary/Extempore/ Tempo". While the song's length, coupled with its title might make you expect it to be hopelessly pretentious, it is actually another example of an extraordinarily gifted musician finally stepping out of the shadow of his better-known friends, and showing the world what he can do.
If there's any justice, those friends, while certainly excellent in their own right, will not stay better-known for long -- for with all due respect, Old Blood is worlds better than either Burst and Bloom or O, Holy Fools, the last releases from said better-known friends. Old Blood is also worlds better than pretty much anything I've heard this year, and stands as nothing short of a remarkable achievement. Stevens has managed the practically impossible: he has created an extremely ambitious and ultimately extremely successful set of songs that make the best possible use of his talents, as well as the talents of his many gifted friends. Here's hoping that the next time you see a Saddle Creek band play live, it will be Mayday, and that we'll find Conor Oberst playing side man to Ted Stevens instead of the other way around.